Interview: The King Blues
Published on May 5th, 2011 | Jonny Abrams and Rob Abrams
Camden Town’s Purple Turtle venue may only lie mere yards away from Koko, its more illustrious counterpart, but the hop, skip and jump it takes to cross the road from one to the other represents one giant leap for any band fortunate enough to have made the step up.
The King Blues are not just one such band; they are legends of the circuit, having blazed a trail across the renowned north London epicentre with any number of insanely energetic live shows at its myriad hotspots. (Sometimes just outside of them.) With their tuneful, rhythmic and politically-engaged songs played at breakneck speed on ukulele and acoustic guitar, they built up a following that dedicatedly followed them from bar to bar, club to club, east London squat party to east London squat party…and eventually, albeit with reservations in some quarters, to the elevated Speaker’s Corner that is ‘the big time’.
Itch, Jamie Jazz and co. were back in Town last weekend to perform at the Camden Crawl, a fitting pit stop on a journey which has seen them grow from Blair-baiting rabble-rousers into the dynamic voice of disenfranchised youth that they are today. All the while, their knack for insanely infectious ska/reggae/punk/hardcore/folk rock – whichever takes their fancy – remains as undimmed as the clarity and vigour with which they get their message across.
If 2006 debut Under the Fog and it’s 2008 follow-up Save the World. Get the Girl were timely in their urgency then last month’s release of Punk & Poetry could come to soundtrack these uncertain times for a generation of young people who, as the song says, are “Fucking Angry”. The journey thus far has not been an entirely smooth one for The King Blues – the departure of guitarist Fruitbag, and his public accusations of hierarchy within the group, left a particularly sour taste – but the explosive yet tuneful Punk & Poetry brings them ever closer to their stated mission of changing the world by dint of becoming the biggest band in it.
Rocksucker caught up with guitarist and all-round good egg Jamie Jazz on the day of the Alternative Voting referendum in order to discuss the new album, their Purple-Turtle-to-Koko rite of passage, the naysayers that inevitably accompany success, the band’s song-writing process, his reaction to Fruitbag’s broadside and why he’s so petrified of bananas…
On today of all days, I suppose it’s only appropriate to begin with AV: yes or no?
I don’t know. It’s kind of a difficult one for me because, regardless of yes or no, I don’t think the system we’re living in is working. It’s a system that puts profit before people, so I imagine my answer would be ‘neither’. It needs an entire upheaval and revolution. I’ve tried to keep my nose out of it [the debate] a little bit because I know it’s one of those things that I get really worked up over and I start shouting at my TV screen!
This might be a more general answer than what you’re looking for but I find it hard to believe that voting changes anything, even voting for a fairer system of voting. It’s just my opinion but it seems to me like they’re one and the same and at the end of the day we’ll still end up with the same result, the same two or three parties in power, going from one to the other, still treating us badly. It’s like a bad relationship. What I think should happen is a complete removal of the system that we live in and a system put into place based on what people want and need, not just based on the profit of a few.
Onto the music now. How was last weekend’s Camden Crawl for you?
It was fantastic. The Crawl’s a lot of fun, although it can be a real stressful time, as you can probably imagine! Anyone who’s involved in it is just pulling their hair out but it was a fantastic day for us nonetheless. We went up to the Red Bull Jazz Stage for our first show and that was on a street where, back in the day, we used to sit around on the corner outside the Elephant’s Head drinking bottles of Special Brew and stuff like that. So it was kind of weird to be up on stage playing there but it was really cool and the sun was out which made for a really nice vibe.
Then we went over to All Ages Records on Pratt Street, just a little bit further out from the high road, which is the only sort of independent, punk rock, DIY ethic record store in London. We’ve worked closely with them over the years; Itch helped paint the walls when they were first opening up and that’s where we go to buy all our records. So we went and did a little thing there, which was a lot of fun, playing to a whole bunch of kids with us standing in the middle of the room with acoustic guitars, and then we went to do an encore show at the Underworld, which is another one of those places in Camden that we went to as kids. It wasn’t uncommon for us as young gig-goers to be in the Underworld four nights in a row because that’s where all the shows were. There was a real kind of old school vibe to the Crawl this year, which I really enjoyed.
These are also the kinds of places you would play when you were first starting out as The King Blues, weren’t they? Places like Barfly, Purple Turtle, the Lock…
Yeah. It’s kind of strange; as a band and as people we sort of ‘found ourselves’ playing in the squat scene in Hackney but Camden was where we always used to go. It was like a spiritual home to us and our entire crew. So there was an old school feeling about it [the Crawl], a feeling of “it’s nice to come back here”, whereas a lot of bands I feel struggle to go back to where they come from successfully without it being seen as kind of…cringe-worthy, almost. I feel very blessed in the way that we can still rock up to All Ages and say, “Hey guys, can we come and do an in-store for you?” and at the same time see how much the band’s grown by being invited to do the Red Bull Stage in front of loads of people.
It all brought back some old memories. We did a headline show at Koko a couple of months back and I was like, “Remember when we used to have a monthly residency at the Purple Turtle across the road?” We used to watch the bands loading in and think “those are the big bands, they’re playing at Koko!” and I had this kind of moment outside where I was watching the band loading into the Turtle. It was quite a humbling moment, to see how far we’ve come.
A few weeks on from the release of Punk & Poetry, how do you feel about it now compared to when you were, say, writing it, demoing it and laying it down? Has it turned out as you’d envisioned?
Originally, Punk & Poetry was going to be a very different record. It had been a fair while since Save the World… and in that time we were writing, trying to get things write, ever evolving as a band. We had a pretty tough year last year; we went through a lot of changes and a lot of upheaval in our band life and, for me and Itch, in our personal lives as well. Itch was writing lyrics which were a lot more introspective and personal, dealing with becoming a father, dealing with life and death, dealing with betrayal, really deep and personal subjects, things that had affected us early last year. That’s what the record was going to be; it wasn’t really a political record as such but then, when the coalition government came into power, we saw all of our mates losing their jobs and I guess it affected Itch and myself directly, becoming parents and seeing our children’s futures being taken away before they can barely stand up.
It angered us, so Itch locked himself away for two or three weeks and came back with a ton of lyrics for a political record. At that point, we shelved everything that we’d written up to that point and just went in the studio. It was a really easy process from there on in because we kind of hit a stride and wrote the record quite quickly as it is now, which is a million times better than the record that we were going to put out. From the initial recording, demoing and writing sessions, it’s a completely, one hundred per cent different album and I’m completely happy with it. I’ve never felt this way about a King Blues record before; there’s not a single thing on it that I don’t like.
The middle trio of tracks – ‘I Want You’, ‘Five Bottles of Shampoo’ and ‘Sex Education’ – don’t strike as typical King Blues song titles but each of their lyrics contain a strong and poignant message. It’s almost like you’re challenging people to pay attention, when it would be easy to look at the titles and think “they’ve gone soft”…
It’s really funny; Itch is my best friend and my band mate but I can still enjoy his lyrics on the same level as anyone else and interpret them for myself. A lot of the time we’d have a piece of music that he’d be writing melodies over but it wouldn’t be until the guys were demoing it that he’d sit down and start singing it properly. That’s when I’d first hear the lyrics so it’s very exciting for me in that respect. The thing I love about Itch’s lyrics is that he’s not preachy with the politics; there’s an element of fun which is important to the political aspect and also to us as a band, us as people, because we’re not always super serious about things. We do enjoy having a good time, having fun, and that comes across.
‘I Want You’ is silly and it’s fun but buried in the song there are still some potent messages and that’s kind of how it works. It’s not preachy or intense, it’s not a lecture, it’s delivered with fun and storytelling and that’s why I think a lot of people have switched on to what we have to say.
There are a one or two ‘new directions’ of sorts on the album: obviously the heavy riffing on ‘We Are Fucking Angry’ but also the funny little tracks like ‘Last of the Dreamers’ and ‘Dancehall’, which sound as if they’re based around samples…
‘Last of the Dreamers’ came about because Itch had some lyrics, a poem: that’s the kind of poetry side of the record, I guess, where it’s more about what the lyric has to say than what the music is doing.
It’s a bit like the opening track on a hip hop record.
Yeah, kind of. We’re really influenced by hip hop, as much as we are influenced by ska, reggae, punk rock and the more obvious influences in The King Blues. We’re heavily influenced by hip hop as well, and how hip hop records are set out: the whole ‘skitting’ thing, which is something you don’t really get in rock music and was something we wanted to pick up on and use on the record, make the words important as opposed to the music.
Itch had the lyric for ‘Last of the Dreamers’ and we were just messing about with acoustic guitars. We ended up hitting down a couple of chords and we just built if from there. That’s kind of how all King Blues songs come around: someone with ukulele or an acoustic guitar writing it and then we build from that very core acoustic vibe.
I was going to ask about the song-writing process because, while the tracks are very diverse, a lot of them are really quite simple at their core. Is this a deliberate ploy to emphasise the lyrical content or is it just the way you guys write?
Yeah. I mean, we’re not Biffy Clyro. They do something fantastic, which is to make complex pop songs, and I think they’re an amazing band. But, you know, we’re not Steve Vai, we’re not super musos; we enjoy playing music but we enjoy playing very simple music, fun and upbeat music, not getting too bogged down with “is it flashy enough?” or “will somebody notice me as a guitarist, know that that’s my signature lick on there?” We work as a group and the most important thing for me about music is letting the lyrics breathe. We like to write simple songs, I guess. It has nothing to do with the fact that we only know four chords! It just is what it is.
In the past you’ve been seen as a key component of the British ska and punk scene. Where do you see yourselves, or where would you position yourselves, now?
That’s definitely where we’ve come from, that heritage of UK ska-punk and hardcore, squat bands like King Prawn, The Restarts and Knuckledust. That’s where we grew from as a band and as musicians and I’ll always be in touch with that scene as it’s been such a huge part of my life, and the band’s life. I’ll forever be a part of that but I try not to think too much about genres, or rules of a genre. I’d like to think that we exist for anyone who wants to hear us and that anyone who wants to be a part of The King Blues can be a part of The King Blues. I want the band to belong to the world as opposed to being cool enough to know about a certain squat party that’s happening, or a certain collective of bands.
We see ourselves as a small part of a huge, worldwide, global movement and we want to do our part to rope people into that. By “the people”, I mean the people, not just those guys sitting in squats. I mean everyone that we can possibly get hold of, everyone that we can sing to and get our message to: that’s what I want to get to. Even back in the early days, it was important for us to not just be part of the punk rock scene; we would go out and play strictly reggae nights, strictly hip hop nights, go out there with one acoustic guitar and try our best to broaden our horizons, I guess.
Even back then it was important for us to be trying to get out to as many people as we could, not just our scene. But, you know, I do feel attached to the punk rock scene in the UK and across the globe, as it’s very much where we’re from.
Are you wary of staving off what they call ‘Green Day-ification’ in the future? By which I mean, do you ever worry that becoming more and more popular might extinguish some of the fire in your bellies?
I don’t really think about it too much. An important aspect of The King Blues is that we mean what we say. That comes from my heart, I’m not saying it as a soundbite or anything. We mean what we say and I think that the day that we stop meaning what we say is the day that we’ll all turn around and go, well, we can’t rightfully do this under the name The King Blues anymore. I’m not too worried because if that fire goes out then it sort of extinguishes the band, you know.
Since day one, we’ve always wanted to be the biggest band in the world and we’ve wanted to change the world: they’ve always been our goals and we still see them as our goals to this day. It [losing the fire] is something to be wary of but, as long as I know that my heart is true, and that my band’s heart is true, then we’re not going to have a problem at all. I know that.
In that sense, does it bother you when some fans get uppity about things like you guys signing to a major label, or switching from acoustic instruments to electric?
I guess it did bother me when I was a bit younger and more sensitive to that kind of thing, and I guess from time to time it still does when I see certain situations, but it just goes back to that thing of knowing that my heart is true, you know? I understand a lot of those kids because I’m from that sort of background and, if I was that age again, I’d probably be pointing at myself and going, “You’re a sell-out.” But things change and the fact of the matter is that I know my heart is true, I know why I do this and I’m not doing it for the money, fame or success.
If we were doing it for the money, fame and success then we wouldn’t be writing political songs, simple as that. We wouldn’t be saying what we say or doing what we do, we would just be writing pop songs and that would be it. There’s nothing wrong with that [writing pop songs] and if that’s someone’s choice in life then more power to them if they can make it happen. But I know for a fact that what we do is true, our aim is true and – to quote Itch a little bit – we want to make music to riot to. You can’t keep everyone happy and if you are keeping everyone happy then you’re not doing a good job; you’re going to piss people off, that’s just part and parcel of it. So no, it doesn’t really bug me anymore.
I think it’s easy to get bogged down with those sorts of people and listen to what they have to say but the way I look at it is that we’re in a healthier position as a band than we ever have been, people do care about my band and are interested in what we have to say, and they’re the people that I look to, the people about whom I think “if it weren’t for them then I wouldn’t be doing this”. Instead of getting bogged down listening to the negative people who want to damage me, my band and my friends, I’m going to look at those people who are positive and celebrate them, be with them. That’s kind of how we’ll move forward.
It’s quite a common phenomenon for fans of bands to pine for ‘the early stuff’, rather than evolve along with the band. People can get quite stuck in their ways.
I do understand that. A lot of these kids feel disenfranchised and have turned to punk rock culture because they feel like they don’t belong. They find a belonging [in punk rock] and, when that kind of changes, they don’t want it to change. They want it to stay with them, they don’t want to be part of the wider world and I totally get that and respect what they have to say. Only time will tell; I guess plenty of people had a lot to say when The Clash signed to CBS and travelled across America but you look back on it now and say, “That band changed the world.”
That band changed so many people’s lives and they wouldn’t have done that if they’d stayed obscure and underground. They would have changed maybe a few people’s lives and been a very miniscule thing. Instead they went worldwide with it and look at it now: I would say that ninety per cent of the people I meet would say that The Clash, or a band like that, changed their lives. Rage Against the Machine, Asian Dub Foundation: these bands had to do what they did and look at the message they spread, a message of peace and love and freedom. So I guess time will tell.
Feel free to pass on this question if it’s something you’ve been asked about a lot but how did you feel about Fruitbag’s public comments after he left the band?
Initially, it really hurt, if I’m perfectly honest with you. I kind of went to a dark place. What thing we’ve all been kind of wary of with this is not letting it turn into a slanging match. He’s done what he had to do in order to feel like he’s removed from the project, I guess. I kind of do respect that but a lot of the stuff he said in there was straight-up lies and slander; not beneficial in any shape or form, just there to hurt. Considering the time that we had spent together and the fact that we had been together and lived together with nothing – literally nothing, you know, except the three of us looking out for each other – it hurt a lot that he felt that way and had to say what he said.
It’s just one of those things; it’s in the past and we’ve moved on as a band and as people. We’re in a positive place now so I guess it’s another one of those negative aspects that you sort of have to remove from your life. If I could turn back the clock, I wish that he could have sat down with us at the pub and we could have had it out as friends, you know, talked about it properly. If he wanted to leave the band then fine, so be it, I would never say “come back” if that was his choice, but the way he went about it was I thought a bit of a coward’s manoeuvre. But, you know, I guess he’s in a happy place now and we certainly are, we’re moving forward and looking forward to the rest of the year, and that’s it now. There’s no time to look back on things. Just move forward.
Let’s move onto some more light-hearted terrain now. Are you aware that, in the Past Band Members section on The King Blues’ Wikipedia entry, clicking on the name of Chris Goodman takes you to the Wikipedia entry for monkfish? The actual fish, that is, rather than the tough, uncompromising Inspector from The Fast Show.
He was the first proper bass player we had in and was with us around Under the Fog until a little bit after that. Maybe he played in a band called Monkfish? I couldn’t even begin to explain why that is. I didn’t know and it’s just kind of amused me so I’m going to go check it out afterwards.
Will ‘All Nazi Skinheads are Gay’ ever see the light of day as a proper recording?
(Laughs) I don’t know. I don’t think so but never say never! It was one of those kneejerk reaction songs that, if taken out of context, can seem to be offensive but that’s not what we meant by it at all. The situation was that we were playing some club show in the Bedford area – this was way back when – and, when we played ‘Come Fi Di Youth’, this big skinhead fella came rushing up to the front and, to cut a long story short, we ended up getting kind of run out of town. The guys that ran the club were these sort of hippie dudes and, while they were very nice, when shit started kicking off as it did, there was no-one there to help us.
The kids who were at the show were trying to help out but they had to deal with these big guys, so we ended up getting kind of run out of town, bricks thrown at our van and shit. We thought we’d try and write a song that was directed straight at those sorts of people, thinking: how could you offend them? That’s sort of how we did it. It was a song for a time and a place, very much a kneejerk reaction I think, so I doubt it will [be recorded]. But you never know with these things.
I came across an article entitled 19 things you didn’t know about The King Blues. So, is it true that you’re best friends with Elijah Wood?
I will never tell you! (Laughs) You know what, I’m going to come clean: no, it’s not true. We did a tour with Gogol Bordello, opening for them, and he was on a couple of dates of that tour because he was friends with [Gogol Bordello front man] Eugene Hütz. It’s true to the point that I once actually said hello to him but I wasn’t entirely sure who he was until my friend told me afterwards. I’m not really up on modern pop culture, I live in a little eighties reggae bubble! But yeah, that’s not true, and there’s a few things in that article which are absolute fabrication.
Like the ‘fact’ that you’re scared of bananas?
No. Petrified of them. That is actually one hundred per cent the honest truth: I will run out of the room if I’m anywhere near a banana. I can’t stand the things.
You must encounter them quite often though…
You’d be surprised! A lot of times I can’t go into dressing rooms because they’re on the rider. If you ever want to get me to leave you alone, just pull out a banana. I will bolt.
Any idea what this strange affliction owes itself to?
No but, whatever it is, I’ve buried it deep, deep, deep, deep down inside. I’m not opening that door!
Is it true that you all got tattoos of anchors done at 5am on your birthday?
Yep, that’s true. I got two done actually, although one of them fell out. Nearly all of us have anchor tattoos; I can’t remember why we got them done but it was my birthday, we’d played some show in some seaside town down in the south west and someone mentioned something about waking up next to a big, burly dude with an anchor tattoo. I can’t remember how that sentence came about but, from there, it got stuck in my head and I was like, “Right, I want everyone to get anchor tattoos!” This kid had a tattoo gun – I have to stress that he wasn’t a tattooist, just owned a tattoo gun – so we went round to his flat and he happily tattooed all of us at 5am, while really drunk.
But another of the ’19 things you don’t know…’ says that you don’t drink…
No, I don’t drink, and I didn’t drink back then, so it was everyone else that was really drunk. This actually makes me seem even worse, ’cause I was sober! No, I don’t drink, I kind of knocked it on the head. I’ve gone back to having the occasional one or two every now and then but nothing extreme. Back then [when we got the tattoos done], I was completely and utterly teetotal, no drinking whatsoever.
Lastly in this section of the interview, is it true that there was a sandwich named after the band in Delhi?
Yeah, we kind of ran out of things to say – we’re not very interesting people! – so we thought, what’s the biggest lie we could make up? What was it…”there’s a sandwich named after us in an old deli in New Delhi”, I think it was. We’d literally run out of things to say about ourselves! They wanted nineteen things, you know. We could have done maybe ten.
Let’s run with it: if you did have a sandwich named after you, what would it be?
That’s a damn good question. I’m going to be straight up with you: it’s got to involve a lot of meat. It’s definitely got to have some bacon in there. There’ll be some chicken. Mayonnaise. Then there’ll be another piece of bread to separate the chicken and bacon, which is already, in and of itself, a sandwich; and on top of that piece of bread, there’ll be some mustard, some beef and probably some kind of deli meat, you know, an pastrami, pepperoni sort of job, or chorizo. Chorizo, let’s go with that. So we’ll have some chorizo in there and then another piece of bread with some salad – not too much, I’m not going to go stupid here – some lettuce and tomato, and some halloumi for the vegetarians. Then another piece of bread on top. And I think I’ve just made a disgusting sandwich.
That’s a Scooby Doo sandwich right there.
(Laughs) Yeah, it is. Without a doubt.
Any top tips, band-wise, for 2011?
Yeah. Going back to that UK ska punk/punk rock scene, it’s looking really healthy at the moment. There’s some interesting stuff on the horizon, like our very good friends The Skints who are literally this week going into the studio to start work on their second record. Their first record was amazing and, if you haven’t got it, I urge you to go and buy it because it’s absolutely fantastic. Personally I’m really looking forward to hearing that; I haven’t heard any of their demos or anything so I’m really excited about that.
Mouthwash are in a similar situation, they’re going in to work on their third record and I know that’s going to be great because they’re a very talented band and I’ve heard a couple of the new songs live. My boy Cynics has just put a record out; he’s a young kid but a fantastic song-writer, more for fans of The Gaslight Anthem. There’s a lot coming out of the scene, it’s definitely more vibrant than it has been for a while so there’s a lot of acts to look out for coming up in that world.
Finally, could you name – as of this very moment – your top three albums of all time?
This changes all the time ’cause I love so many albums but number one, for me, has to be Life Won’t Wait by Rancid. It’s a controversial choice in terms of Rancid records – and in punk rock records – but, for me, that record taught me that you could make reggae/ska music while being from a punk rock background, and marry it with the aggression and anger of punk rock. Despite the fact that it was mostly reggae, it was still a really heavy record and that taught me when it came to writing ska or reggae sort of songs that, just because you came from a punk rock background, it didn’t have to be super fast and shiny and happy, that you could really add some weight to it. That record opened a lot of doors for me.
Number two is probably Time Won’t Heal This by Knuckledust, who are a London hardcore band. They were playing at the first show I ever went to, which was an all-dayer at the Underworld in ’99 or 2000, I think. This may sound a bit silly – it even sounds silly in my head – but, at the time, I was quite young and very much a bedroom punk rocker, reading about all these shows and all this stuff that happened in the eighties, and I got really nervous about skinheads, white supremacists and Nazis, those sorts of people. I grew up in Tottenham and they used to have matinee hardcore shows down at the Tottenham Swan every other Sunday, for all ages, but I would never go to them because I was really, really scared that I’d get beaten up by Nazis. There’s still an element of it, obviously, but in my head it was like: everyone will kill me if I go in there.
I finally plucked up the courage to go to this show – there was a really good lineup so I thought, “I’ve got to go!” – and I’d never heard of Knuckledust before. They came on, a bunch of black guys onstage and, although it sounds so crude looking back on it, it was revolutionary to me because I’d never seen it before. I didn’t know about Bad Brains back then, I didn’t know about black and Asian musicians in punk rock so it really opened up my eyes. Then I bought that record and I still listen to it to this day, once a week at least; I love it. It goes beyond the colour of their skin or anything like that, it’s just a fine example of UK hardcore at its best and it was a real turning point in terms of what I listened to because it got me into hardcore music and real aggressive street music.
Number three is going to be – can we go there? Yeah, let’s go there – The Shape of Punk to Come by Refused. Again, it revolutionised in my head – and in a lot of people’s heads – what punk rock was and what you could do with it. It taught me that there were no limitations to what the punk and hardcore scene can be. It wasn’t just musically; they came out all dressed smartly in black, everything was really sleek, an amazing look. It was kind of like: wow! They exceeded in having electronica in their music, incorporating all these different elements and instrumentation into a hardcore record that I had never thought about doing. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that you could meld those two things so that record blew my mind.
Jamie, thank you.
The King Blues’ third album Punk & Poetry is out now on Transmission Recordings. For more information and a list of live dates, please visit www.kingblues.net